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Solitude Is Sometimes The Best Society Essay

Solitude is a state of isolation, seclusion, or lack of contact, association, or similarity with other people. Short-term solitude is often valued as a time when one may work, think or rest without being disturbed, or for the sake of desirable privacy. Loneliness is a state of sorrow associated with undesired solitude.

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  • While God created Adam, who was alone, He said, 'It is not good for man to be alone. He also created a woman, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith immediately began to fight. She said, 'I will not lie below,' and he said, 'I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be the superior one.' Lilith responded, 'We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.' But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air.
  • My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.


  • R. Hanina said: One may not sleep in a house alone [in a lonely house], and whoever sleeps in a house alone is seized by Lilith.
    • Babylonian Talmud on Tractate Shabbath 151b
  • Whosoever is delighted in solitude, is either a wild beast or a god.
    • Francis Bacon, 'Essays', XXVII “On Friendship” (1612, rewritten 1625). Bacon is paraphrasing from Aristotle, 'Politics', 1253a25-30
  • Alone, adj. In bad company.
  • Le sage quelquefois évite le monde, de peur d’être ennuyé.
  • I was a man who thrived on solitude; without it I was like another man without food or water. Each day without solitude weakened me.
  • But 'midst the crowd, the hum, the shock of men,
    To hear, to see, to feel, and to possess,
    And roam along, the world's tired denizen,
    With none who bless us, none whom we can bless.
  • 'Tis solitude should teach us how to die;
    It hath no flatterers; vanity can give
    No hollow aid; alone—man with his God must strive.


  • A man is born alone and dies alone; and he experiences the good and bad consequences of his karma alone; and he goes alone to hell or the Supreme abode.
  • Alone, alone, all, all alone,
    Alone on a wide, wide sea.
  • So lonely 'twas that God himself
    Scarce seemed there to be.
  • Who knows what true loneliness is — not the conventional word, but the naked terror? To the lonely themselves it wears a mask. The most miserable outcast hugs some memory or some illusion.


  • The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom.
    • William O. Douglas, dissenting, Public utilities Commission v. Pollak, 343 U.S. 451, 467 (1952)


  • Man is, at one and the same time, a solitary being and a social being. As a solitary being, he attempts to protect his own existence and that of those who are closest to him, to satisfy his personal desires, and to develop his innate abilities. As a social being, he seeks to gain the recognition and affection of his fellow human beings, to share in their pleasures, to comfort them in their sorrows, and to improve their conditions of life. Only the existence of these varied, frequently conflicting, strivings accounts for the special character of a man, and their specific combination determines the extent to which an individual can achieve an inner equilibrium and can contribute to the well-being of society.


  • Well, if I were the last man on Earth, really the last man on Earth, where everybody's dead but me, first I would go over to the art museum and bring back a Rembrandt or two, as Neville does; you dont notice it much in the film, but it counted for me. He can do what he wants. He doesn't have to change his clothes. He just goes into a store and picks up a new set of pants and a shirt. Whatever he wants. And there's plenty of gas, so he doesn't have to worry about gas prices. And we do that, too. I think that was part of what we were trying for, to present to an audience what it would be like to be the last man on Earth.
  • If I were truly the last man on Earth, I would talk to myself. I've been out in the woods, hunting and things. There's no one else to talk to, so you talk to yourself. Why not? In Neville's case, there is no one else to talk to. That's part of the beginning of the film. When he finds that there is actually someone else alive, that changes the direction of his behavior.


  • We have heard of the solitude of the wide ocean, of the sandy desert, of the pathless forest; but, for a real, thorough, and entire knowledge, far beyond Zimmerman’s, of the pleasures of solitude, commend us to a young damsel doomed to a sofa and female society, while quadrille after quadrille is formed in her sight, and the waltzes go round like stars with whose motions we have nothing to do.


  • A person who lives in a place where the norms of behavior are evil and the inhabitants do not follow the straight path should move to a place where the people are righteous and follow the ways of the good.

    If all the places with which he is familiar and of which he hears reports follow improper paths, as in our times, ... he should remain alone in seclusion. ...

    If they are wicked and sinful and do not allow him to reside there unless he mingle with them and follow their evil behavior, he should go out to caves, thickets, and deserts.

    • Maimonides, Laws Concerning Character Traits, Chapter 6, Section 1
  • And Wisdom's self
    Oft seeks to sweet retired solitude,
    Where, with her best nurse, Contemplation,
    She plumes her feathers, and lets grow her wings,
    That in the various bustle of resort
    Were all too ruffled, and sometimes impaired.
  • For solitude sometimes is best society,
    And short retirement urges sweet return.


  • Where there have been powerful governments, societies, religions, public opinions, in short wherever there has been tyranny, there the solitary philosopher has been hated; for philosophy offers an asylum to a man into which no tyranny can force its way, the inward cave, the labyrinth of the heart.
    • Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, trans. Hollingdale, “Schopenhauer as educator,” § 3.3, p. 139
  • These people who have fled inward for their freedom also have to live outwardly, become visible, let themselves be seen; they are united with mankind through countless ties of blood, residence, education, fatherland, chance, the importunity of others; they are likewise presupposed to harbour countless opinions simply because these are the ruling opinions of the time; every gesture which is not clearly a denial counts as agreement.
    • Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, trans. Hollingdale, “Schopenhauer as educator,” § 3.3, p. 139


  • Then there is a very small remnant, Adeimantus, I said, of worthy disciples of philosophy: perchance some noble nature, brought up under good influences, and in the absence of temptation, who is detained by exile in her service, which he refuses to quit; or some lofty soul born in a mean city, the politics of which he contemns or neglects; and perhaps there may be a few who, having a gift for philosophy, leave other arts, which they justly despise, and come to her; and peradventure there are some who are restrained by our friend Theages' bridle (for Theages, you know, had everything to divert him from philosophy; but his ill-health kept him from politics). My own case of the internal sign is indeed hardly worth mentioning, as very rarely, if ever, has such a monitor been vouchsafed to any one else. Those who belong to this small class have tasted how sweet and blessed a possession philosophy is, and have also seen and been satisfied of the madness of the multitude, and known that there is no one who ever acts honestly in the administration of States, nor any helper who will save any one who maintains the cause of the just. Such a savior would be like a man who has fallen among wild beasts—unable to join in the wickedness of his fellows, neither would he be able alone to resist all their fierce natures, and therefore he would be of no use to the State or to his friends, and would have to throw away his life before he had done any good to himself or others. And he reflects upon all this, and holds his peace, and does his own business. He is like one who retires under the shelter of a wall in the storm of dust and sleet which the driving wind hurries along; and when he sees the rest of mankind full of wickedness, he is content if only he can live his own life and be pure from evil or unrighteousness, and depart in peace and good will, with bright hopes.


  • A man with no friends, only live for revenge
    Live his life off the henge, cut, through a thousand men
    Blade swing with the force of a cyclone
    Cut crystal and bone, pistol and chrome
    Stand in my path, you're a dead man
    I cut the whole world in half for the Number One headband
    Quest of a lonely soul, on a lonely road


  • People are rendered sociable by their inability to endure solitude, that is to say, their own society. They become sick of themselves. It is this vacuity of soul which drives them to intercourse with others. ... Such people, it may be said, possess only a small fraction of humanity in themselves; and it requires a great many of them put together to make up a fair amount of it,—to attain any degree of consciousness as men. A man, in the full sense of the word,—a man par excellence—does not represent a fraction, but a whole number: he is complete in himself.
  • A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free. Constraint is always present in society, like a companion of whom there is no riddance; and in proportion to the greatness of a man’s individuality, it will be hard for him to bear the sacrifices which all intercourse with others demands.
  • When, musing on companions gone,
    We doubly feel ourselves alone.
  • Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred.
  • It is better to dwell in the wilderness, than with a contentious and an angry woman.
  • Solitude is the mother of anxieties.


  • Modern civilization is so complex as to make the devotional life all but impossible. It wears us out by multiplying distractions and beats us down by destroying our solitude, where otherwise we might drink and renew our strength before going out to face the world again.
    “The thoughtful soul to solitude retires,” said the poet of other and quieter times; but where is the solitude to which we can retire today? Science, which has provided men with certain material comforts, has robbed them of their souls by surrounding them with a world hostile to their existence.
  • There is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a Dream, a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And You are but a Thought — a vagrant Thought, a useless Thought, a homeless Thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities.


  • Les objets extérieurs ont une action réelle sur le cerveau. Qui s’enferme entre quatre murs finit par perdre la faculté d’associer les idées et les mots. Que de prisonniers cellulaires devenus imbéciles, sinon fous, par le défaut d’exercice des facultés pensantes.
    • External objects produce decided effects upon the brain. A man shut up between four walls soon loses the power to associate words and ideas together. How many prisoners in solitary confinement become idiots, if not mad, for want of exercise for the thinking faculty!
  • We are rarely proud when we are alone.
    • Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary (1764)


  • Self-expression is impossible in relation with other men; their self-expression interferes with it. The greatest heights of self-expression in poetry, music, painting – are achieved by men who are supremely alone.
  • Similar though Marx and Thoreau may be in their accounts of the consequences of living in a society defined by money, their suggestions for how to respond to it are poles apart. Forget the Party. Forget the revolution. Forget the general strike. Forget the proletariat as an abstract class of human interest. Thoreau's revolution begins not with discovering comrades to be yoked together in solidarity but with the embrace of solitude. For Thoreau, Marx's first and fatal error was the creation of the aggregate identity of the proletariat. Error was substituted for error. The anonymity and futility of the worker were replaced by the anonymity and futility of the revolutionary. A revolution conducted by people who have only a group identity can only replace one monolith of power with another, one misery with another, perpetuating the cycle of domination and oppression. In solitude, the individual becomes most human, which is to say most spiritual.
    • Curtis White, “The spirit of disobedience: An invitation to resistance,” Harper’s, April 2006, pp. 37-38


  • O sacred solitude! divine retreat!
    Choice of the prudent! envy of the great,
    By thy pure stream, or in thy waving shade,
    We court fair wisdom, that celestial maid.
  • O! lost to virtue, lost to manly thought,
    Lost to the noble sallies of the soul!
    Who think it solitude to be alone.
  • This sacred shade and solitude, what is it?
    'Tis the felt presence of the Deity,
    Few are the faults we flatter when alone.

Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations[edit]

Quotes reported in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 729-31.
  • Converse with men makes sharp the glittering wit,
    But God to man doth speak in solitude.
  • I am as one who is left alone at a banquet, the lights dead and the flowers faded.
  • Alone!—that worn-out word,
    So idly spoken, and so coldly heard;
    Yet all that poets sing, and grief hath known,
    Of hope laid waste, knells in that word—ALONE!
  • Nunquam se minus otiosum esse quam cum otiosus; nec minus solum quam cum solus esset.
    • That he was never less at leisure than when at leisure; nor that he was ever less alone than when alone.
    • Cicero, De Officiis (44 B.C.), Book III, Chapter I. Also in Rep. I. 17. 27. A saying of Scipio Africanus, as quoted by Cato. Also attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux
  • I praise the Frenchman; his remark was shrewd,—
    "How sweet, how passing sweet is solitude."
    But grant me still a friend in my retreat,
    Whom I may whisper—Solitude is sweet.
    • William Cowper, Retirement, line 739. The quotation is attributed to La Bruyère and to Jean Guez de Balzac
  • Oh, for a lodge in some vast wilderness,
    Some boundless contiguity of shade,
    Where rumour of oppression and deceit,
    Of unsuccessful or successful war,
    Might never reach me more!
  • O solitude, where are the charms
    That sages have seen in thy face?
    Better dwell in the midst of alarms,
    Than reign in this horrible place.
  • Solitude is the nurse of enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is the true parent of genius. In all ages solitude has been called for—has been flown to.
    • Isaac D'Israeli, The Literary Character, Illustrated by the History of Men of Genius (1795-1822), Chapter X
  • There is a society in the deepest solitude.
    • Isaac D'Israeli, The Literary Character, Illustrated by the History of Men of Genius (1795-1822), Chapter X
  • So vain is the belief
    That the sequestered path has fewest flowers.
  • Thrice happy he, who by some shady grove,
    Far from the clamorous world; doth live his own;
    Though solitary, who is not alone,
    But doth converse with that eternal love.
  • We enter the world alone, we leave it alone.
  • I was never less alone than when by myself.
  • Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergiebt,
    Ach! der ist bald allein.
  • Nobody with me at sea but myself.
  • Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife.
  • O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
    Let it not be among the jumbled heap
    Of murky buildings: climb with me the steep,—
    Nature's observatory—whence the dell,
    In flowery slopes, its river's crystal swell,
    May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
    'Mongst boughs pavilion'd, where the deer's swift leap
    Startles the wild bee from the foxglove bell.
    • John Keats, Sonnet, O Solitude! If I Must With Thee Dwell
  • Why should we faint and fear to live alone,
    Since all alone, so Heaven has willed, we die,
    Nor even the tenderest heart and next our own
    Knows half the reasons why we smile and sigh.
    • John Keble, Christian Year, Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Trinity
  • We spend our lives fighting to get people very slightly more stupid than ourselves to accept truths that the great men have always known. They have known for thousands of years that to lock a sick person into solitary confinement makes him worse. They have known for thousands of years that a poor man who is frightened of his landlord and of the police is a slave. They have known it. We know it. But do the great enlightened mass of the British people know it? No. It is our task, Ella, yours and mine, to tell them. Because the great men are too great to be bothered. They are already discovering how to colonise Venus and to irrigate the moon. That is what is important for our time. You and I are the boulder-pushers. All our lives, you and I, we’ll put all our energies, all our talents into pushing a great boulder up a mountain. The boulder is the truth that the great men know by instinct, and the mountain is the stupidity of mankind.
  • Solitude is as needful to the imagination as society is wholesome for the character.
  • I feel like one who treads alone
    Some banquet hall deserted,
    Whose lights are fled, whose garlands dead,
    And all but he departed.
  • Now the New Year reviving old Desires,
    The thoughtful Soul to Solitude retires.
  • Far in a wild, unknown to public view,
    From youth to age a reverend hermit grew;
    The moss his bed, the cave his humble cell,
    His food the fruits, his drink the crystal well,
    Remote from man, with God he pass'd the days;
    Prayer all his business, all his pleasure praise.
  • Shall I, like an hermit, dwell
    On a rock or in a cell?
  • Then never less alone than when alone.
  • Atque ubi omnia nobis mala solitudo persuadet.
    • And when Solitude leads us into all manner of evil.
    • Seneca the Younger, Epistle 25. Quoting Galgacus, leader of the Britains
  • I love tranquil solitude
    And such society
    As is quiet, wise, and good.
  • A wise man is never less alone than when he is alone.
  • Alone each heart must cover up its dead;
    Alone, through bitter toil, achieve its rest.
  • 'Tis not for golden eloquence I pray,
    A godlike tongue to move a stony heart—
    Methinks it were full well to be apart
    In solitary uplands far away,
    Betwixt the blossoms of a rosy spray,
    Dreaming upon the wonderful sweet face
    Of Nature, in a wild and pathless place.
  • I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
  • I could live in the woods with thee in sight,
    Where never should human foot intrude:
    Or with thee find light in the darkest night,
    And a social crowd in solitude.
  • Impulses of deeper birth
    Have come to him in solitude.
  • They flash upon that inward eye
    Which is the bliss of solitude.
  • Often have I sighed to measure
    By myself a lonely pleasure,—
    Sighed to think I read a book,
    Only read, perhaps, by me.

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Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition. Man is the only being who knows he is alone.
~ Octavio Paz

‘I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls.’ Henry David Thoreau’s remark about his experience of solitude expresses many of the common ideas we have about the work — and the apparent privileges — of being alone. As he put it so vividly in Walden (1854), his classic account of the time he spent alone in the Massachusetts woods, he went there to ‘live deep and suck out all the marrow of life’. Similarly, when I retreat into solitude, I hope to reconnect with a wider, more-than-human world and by so doing become more fully alive, recovering what the Gospel of Thomas called, ‘he who was, before he came into being’.

It has always been a key step on the ‘way’ or ‘path’ in Taoist philosophy (‘way’ being the literal translation of Tao) to go into the wilderness and lay oneself bare to whatever one finds there, whether that be the agonies of St Anthony, or the detachment of the Taoist masters. Alone in the wild, we shed the conventions that keep society ticking over — freedom from the clock, in particular, is a hugely important factor. We are opened up to other, less conventional, customs: in the wild, animals may talk to us, birds will sometimes guide us to water or light, the wind may become a second skin. In the wild, we may even find our true bodies, creaturely and vivid and indivisible from the rest of creation — but this comes only when we break free, not just from the constraints of clock and calendar and social convention, but also from the sometimes-clandestine hopes, expectations and fears with which we arrived.

For many of us, solitude is tempting because it is ‘the place of purification’, as the Israeli philosopher Martin Buber called it. Our aspiration for travelling to that place might be the simple pleasure of being away, unburdened by the pettiness and corruption of the day-to-day round. For me, being alone is about staying sane in a noisy and cluttered world – I have what the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould called a ‘high solitude quotient’ — but it is also a way of opening out a creative space, to give myself a chance to be quiet enough to see or hear what happens next.

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There are those who are inclined to be purely temporary dwellers in the wilderness, who don’t stay long. As soon as they are renewed by a spell of lonely contemplation, they are eager to return to the everyday fray. Meanwhile, the committed wilderness dwellers are after something more. Yet, even if contemplative solitude gives them a glimpse of the sublime (or, if they are so disposed, the divine), questions arise immediately afterwards. What now? What is the purpose of this solitude? Whom does it serve?

Solitude can enliven a new sense of what companionship means

To take oneself out into the wilderness as part of a spiritual quest is one thing, but to remain there in a kind of barren ecstasy is another. The Anglo-American mystic Thomas Merton argues that ‘there is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality, for life is maintained and nourished in us by our vital relation with realities outside and above us. When our life feeds on unreality, it must starve.’ If practised as part of a living spiritual path, he says, and not simply as an escape from corruption or as an expression of misanthropy, ‘your solitude will bear immense fruit in the souls of men you will never see on earth’. It is a point Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s friend and teacher, also makes. Solitude is essential to the spiritual path, he argues, but ‘we require such solitude as shall hold us to its revelations when we are in the streets and in palaces … it is not the circumstances of seeing more or fewer people but the readiness of sympathy that imports’.

Thoreau, however, felt keenly the corruption of a politically compromised, profit-oriented, slave-keeping society. His posthumously published work Cape Cod (1865) is, at least in part, an expression of dismay, even grief, in which he revealed his desire to turn his back on American society. Yet for much of his life, he kept Emerson’s principle close, as he remembers in Walden:

There too, as everywhere, I sometimes expected the Visitor who never comes. The Vishnu Purana says, ‘The house-holder is to remain at eventide in his courtyard as long as it takes to milk a cow, or longer if he pleases, to await the arrival of a guest.’ I often performed this duty of hospitality, waited long enough to milk a whole herd of cows, but did not see the man approaching from the town.

Perhaps the ‘Visitor who never comes’ is the man approaching from town – or perhaps it is some other, more mysterious – and perhaps less benevolent arrival. As Merton cautioned, the wilderness is a place of becoming lost, as much as found. ‘First, the desert is the country of madness. Second, it is the refuge of the devil, thrown out … to “wander in dry places”. Thirst drives men mad, and the devil himself is mad with a kind of thirst for his own lost excellence — lost because he has immured himself in it and closed out everything else.’

Karl Marx expresses this idea in another way. In his A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844) he says, ‘what difference is there between the history of our freedom and the history of the boar’s freedom if it can be found only in the forests? … It is common knowledge that the forest echoes back what you shout into it.’ Marx saw religion — and by implication, the spiritual life in general — as ‘the opium of the people,’ but the important point is the need to be careful of the dangers of forest thinking. As in every fairy tale and medieval romance, the wilderness is peopled with dragons, but only some of them are native to the place. The rest are introduced by the solitary pilgrim himself, whose quest had seemed so pure and well-intentioned when he set out.

If solitude does not lead us back to society, it can become a spiritual dead end, an act of self-indulgence or escapism, as Merton, Emerson, Thoreau, and the Taoist masters all knew. We might admire the freedom of the wild boar, we might even envy it, but as long as others are enslaved, or hungry, or held captive by social conventions, it is our duty to return and do what we can for their liberation. For the old cliché is true: no matter what I do, I cannot be free while others are enslaved, I cannot be truly happy while others suffer. And, no matter how sublime or close to the divine my solitary hut in the wilderness might be, it is a sterile paradise of emptiness and rage unless I am prepared to return and participate actively in the social world. Thoreau, that icon of solitary contemplation, did eventually return to support the cause of abolition. In so doing, he laid down the principles of civil disobedience that would later inspire Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the freedom fighters of anti-imperialist movements throughout the world.

‘No man is an island, entire of itself,’ wrote John Donne, in a too-often quoted line, but the full impact comes in the continuation of his meditation, where he writes:

every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

It is one of the great paradoxes of solitude, that it offers us not an escape, not a paradise, not a dwelling place where we can haughtily maintain our integrity by ignoring a vicious and corrupt social world, but a way back to that world, and a new motive for being there. Moreover, it can enliven a new sense of what companionship means — and, with it, a courtesy and hospitability that goes beyond anything good manners might decree. Because, no matter who I am, and no matter what I might or might not have achieved, my very life depends on being prepared, always, for the one visitor who never comes, but might arrive at any moment, from the woods or from the town.

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John Burnside

is a poet and novelist. His latest book, A Summer of Drowning (2011), is published by Jonathan Cape. He lives in Fife, Scotland.